Go Figure: Three Women Refashion Figuration

Written by Alfred MacAdam         

There is a new day dawning for figurative painting. Not that pictures of naked ladies or racing horses are making a comeback, but intellectual, political, and social content are forging their way back into the forefront of painting, and it’s women artists who are leading the way.

 Genieve Figgis,  Royal Friends,  2014. Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. ©Genieve Figgis; Courtesy of Harper's Books.

Genieve Figgis, Royal Friends, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. ©Genieve Figgis; Courtesy of Harper's Books.

         Genieve Figgis, Jane Corrigan, and Kate Groobey, each in her own eccentric style is showing that representational art has an important role to play in our visual culture. Very different artists, they nevertheless share affinities with Expressionism's distorted reaction to Impressionist placidity. Like the Expressionists, they inscribe their work within an artistic tradition that they demolish through parody and satire. These three women find humor to be the best weapon for abolishing the subaltern status imposed on women artists because humor is empowering, disarming, and seductive.

         In all three, there is a will to the grotesque and a delight in the capriccio-- the caprice or whimsy. The grotesque, as in Roman decoration, is exuberant, with intertwined vines, a metaphor for natural continuity and growth. But mixed in with those vines are faces, mermaids, putti, a vast encyclopedia of fantasy figures. The capriccio  links the real world to the inner world of the subconscious, with its  memories, desires, fears, and outright horrors in the tradition of Goya. All translate into visual images that sidestep the gender neutrality of abstraction in order to maintain social, political, and cultural ties to everyday reality. These artists are not simply reporters or social critics but creators of a parallel, parody reality. By reconfiguring the grotesque and the capriccio they interrupt one tradition to establish another. These women interrupt and refashion an inherited male-dominated artistic tradition that history has imposed on them.

         Genieve Figgis is the most obvious case in point. Her signature paintings take apart the "conversation piece" paintings of the 18th century--the family or friends grouped together by Johann Zoffany and Joshua Reynolds. Figgis transmutes those placid aristocrats into grinning monsters, her groups of ladies more reminiscent of vampires at play than Jane Austen's young ladies at tea. She respects the decorum, the composition of the conversation paintings but turns them inside out.

         To what end? Once again, to acknowledge a tradition while reconfiguring it. Goya saw Tiepolo's capricci and transformed them into something more profound than Rococo divagations. In doing so, he translated the Romantic imagination into visual images: political denunciations, witches' Sabbaths, murders, rapes--along with the horrors of war and a host of personal demons. This sense of a personal exorcism pervades Figgis' painting but with a gender-specific nuance: her parodies mock not only the originals but also the very idea of a dainty, well-mannered concept of female art. Her 2014 Making Love with the Devil transforms the Rococo erotic into what it really is: the downward spiral of sex, submission, and perdition.

 Jane Corrigan,  Morning (I'm scared Mo  m) , 2015. Oil on linen. 70 x 55 inches. ©Jane Corrigan; Courtesy of MARINARO gallery. 

Jane Corrigan, Morning (I'm scared Mom), 2015. Oil on linen. 70 x 55 inches. ©Jane Corrigan; Courtesy of MARINARO gallery. 

         Jane Corrigan documents--again in a style reminiscent of childish attempts at art--the life of the new girl, who revels in her sense of agency, her sexuality, and her freedom from the social shackles of yesteryear. Corrigan's young woman doesn't live devoid of fear; far from it: many of her paintings are charged with danger--monsters lurking in stairways, storms, or the stress of adolescence. Morning (I'm Scared, Mom) [2015] shows a young girl in her undies being tidied up, perhaps for school. What does she fear? Bullying, cliques, lack of attention/affection? Who knows?

         The point is that the girl is alone, despite mom, friends, or her cat. Much in the way Corrigan is alone in front of the empty canvas. The Noise Upstairs (Creep) [2015] captures perfectly the idea of the unaccompanied young woman exploring alien space. She can't see the monster (or creep), but she knows what she wants and will use her own light (her lantern) to open up previously forbidden worlds.

         Kate Groobey rehabilitates the zany. Not that she is personally zany or that her wonderful large-scale paintings are zany, but that she brings to artistic life the zany, the clown, the zanni or Gianni or Giovanni of the Commedia dell'Arte. Groobey's large-scale paintings evoke an ancient tradition of stock types and improvised dialogue intimately linked to music and dance.

         Her types are, however, her own invention. Take the milkman in the painting I'm Made of Milk. He's crudely drawn, his words are crudely drawn, and a child's drawing effect dominates the composition. The allusion to childhood and therefore to dreams, daydreams, and fantasies, takes the viewer back to Expressionism. The Expressionists sought to disrupt Impressionism's shimmering but socially innocuous optical effects and bring painting back to a social matrix. This they could only accomplish through parody and overtly unnatural color and drawing.

         Kate Groobey's work may best be understood as an appropriation of that Expressionist dynamic, but linked in her case to a woman's affirmation of presence within a male-dominated artistic tradition. Meaning to say that her milkman, with all his phallic and inseminating energy--those huge drops of milk he scatters around certainly look both familiar and dangerous--is actually androgynous.

 Kate Groobey,  I'm Made Of Milk , 2017. Oil on canvas. 73 x 59 inches. ©Kate Groobey; Courtesy of Horton Gallery.

Kate Groobey, I'm Made Of Milk, 2017. Oil on canvas. 73 x 59 inches. ©Kate Groobey; Courtesy of Horton Gallery.

         This we can only see in the absolutely zany video she incorporated into her New York show. In each sequence, Groobey dresses up as the central character in her paintings--the Milkman or the Melon man for example--and does a grotesque dance. This masking and costuming constitutes a metaphor for female artistic endeavor: to succeed you must "man-up," just as so many 19th century women authors could only publish under male pseudonyms. But the longer we look at the figures in her video, the more androgynous or multi-sexual they become: some even have vague bosoms the images in the paintings evidently lack.

         Groobey's zany vision argues coherently for a new kind of gestural figuration. Beyond geometric or expressionistic abstraction, there is a vast territory that women artists must appropriate and reconstitute. Groobey shows how to go about achieving that goal: humor both disarms and seduces spectators; brilliant color draws them in. Her paintings delight and teach at the same time.

         Each of these women deploys figuration in her own way, yet they share a penchant for irony and humor, the traditional weapons of those deprived of power who take on the task to subvert and overcome it.

Please use the "RESPOND TO ISSUE #3" button on the top right of this page to submit your answers.

Monochrome, Why And What?

Written by Barbara MacAdam

One of the principal enigmas in judging art is that nothing is as it seems. We dismiss that indefinability at our own risk. Take the idea of the monochrome. The term is defined as a single color with or without variations in tone, much akin to Minimalism, but how do we respond to an artwork when we exclude such properties as line and figure that give clues to subject and meaning?

Left with color alone, which we may all perceive differently, we must wonder what draws us to a monochrome and what inspires an artist to tell so apparently little.

 Shirazeh Houshiary,  Genesis , 2016. Pigment and pencil on black aquacryl on aluminium. 74 3/4 x 212 5/8 inches. ©Shirazeh Houshiary; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Shirazeh Houshiary, Genesis, 2016. Pigment and pencil on black aquacryl on aluminium. 74 3/4 x 212 5/8 inches. ©Shirazeh Houshiary; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Artists Imi Knoebel, Robert Ryman, Marcia Hafif, Rudolf De Crignis, Jill Baroff, and Bosco Sodi offer just a glimpse of the range, power, and expressive potential of monochromatic art. The spectrum is broad, yet the constraints the artists set for themselves are narrow and extreme.

Monochrome purports to offer a neutral base from which to read a painting or sculpture. And as such, it can stand as a starting point for inspiration, a container awaiting filler.

Art historian and critic Barbara Rose has written, “Monochrome art has two origins: the mystical and the concrete.” We see “the object as material presence, not illusion.”

Yves Klein, likened monochrome painting, using mostly his own “International Klein Blue” to “an open window to freedom,” merging the spirituality of intense focus with the obviously material.

 Bosco Sodi,  Untitled , 2017. Clay cubes. 88 1/4 x 22 1/8 x 22 1/8 inches.  ©Bosco Sodi; Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Bosco Sodi, Untitled, 2017. Clay cubes. 88 1/4 x 22 1/8 x 22 1/8 inches.  ©Bosco Sodi; Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary, showing now at Lisson Gallery, offers only ostensibly monochrome renderings. Her works have compulsive underpinnings—almost invisible writing that appears as uniform color and is made up of the words of prayers or songs, for example, written repeatedly in cursive, forming waves of tone and intensity. In this way Houshiary conveys feeling, mood, and rhythm, which we perceive almost subliminally.

By contrast, much of the impenetrable work of Mexican-born sculptor Bosco Sodi, who is currently the subject of an exhibition at Paul Kasmin gallery, consists of solid enigmatic mounds of textured and intensely colored pigment that could be viewed at most as barren landscapes or deserts, but there are no or clues—just dense substance. His sculptures, stacked cubes in modulated shades, also give barely a clue to personal associations.

Robert Yasuda, a near monochromist, claims to seek total nonobjectivity—which he distinguishes from abstraction, as he explains in a video made at P.S.1 as was reinstalling a site-specific piece he’d made for a show there 50 years ago. An abstraction, is taken from something else, he notes, where as a nonobjective work is free of association (which may or may not be the case, but for argument’s sake, it works.). He tries to get to the point where there can be no specific associations but where the work may convey instead “feelings, optics, or the way your eye operates in delighting in color.”

Yasuda notes how some people may look at his work and say there’s nothing there, but the truth for him is that “what is not there ends up being the subject.” And it changes as you move.

 Left to Right: Bosco Sodi,  Untitled , 2016.  Mixed media on canvas. 73 1/4 x 73 1/4 inches. ©Bosco Sodi; Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.  Robert Yasuda,  The Deep , 2017. Acrylic on fabric on wood. 72 x 72 inches. ©Robert Yasuda; Courtesy of Robert Yasuda.

Left to Right: Bosco Sodi, Untitled, 2016.  Mixed media on canvas. 73 1/4 x 73 1/4 inches. ©Bosco Sodi; Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.  Robert Yasuda, The Deep, 2017. Acrylic on fabric on wood. 72 x 72 inches. ©Robert Yasuda; Courtesy of Robert Yasuda.

More ostensibly uncompromisingly, the late Rudolf de Crignis would paint so many layers to yield what appears to be a solid blue surface (one that he would always refer to as gray as if to declare a kind of non-referential neutrality and a permanent state of irresolution). His canvases are so stunning with shades shifting so subtly that viewers can’t help being drawn in to wonder what they are viewing. Every atmospheric variant surrounding the image--humidity, fog, sun, shade, glare, breeze, and so on—changes the work itself and so our understanding of it.

One attraction to monochrome, besides what viewers bring to it, is its democracy: it begins in the middle, so to speak, largely without obvious history. It is really up to us to be co-creators. It can be like sitting with an extremely laconic person and finding ourselves uncontrollably filling the seeming void with words and thoughts. But then, finding comfort in inadvertently creating something new.

Robert Wilson, in describing how he conceives a project says, he begins with one point (maybe two), makes a mark, and then lets it open him to an ever larger structure with sections that he may fill or leave empty or black out.  That’s what we have to decide: do we stick with one idea or view of a work, or do we build mental constructions that may or may not please us and that may or may not be totally to the point, but just as the artist must begin somewhere, so must the viewer.

- Barbara MacAdam

Please use the "RESPOND TO ISSUE #2" button on the top right of this page to submit your answers.

Taste and Tastemakers

Written by Barbara MacAdam

I’d like to begin this column with a basic question that I welcome you all to weigh in on: what is good art and what is bad art?

Is there really such a dichotomy? And if so, how do we decide?

We could base it on instinct, we could consider art-historical validity, where and how it fits, cultural relevance, social consciousness, aesthetics, quality of execution and content, or even popularity. Above all, it lies in the mind and eyes of the beholder, but who is the beholder? This is where personal taste becomes relevant.

Is there a reason, I’ve wondered, why a viewer with a predilection for Minimalism and conceptualism in art would prefer similar qualities in music, or why someone with an affinity for obsessive drawing requiring close reading would find a parallel in Baroque music and string quartets? 

Are people attracted to abstraction because it fulfills a need, known or otherwise, to complete an image, or to create a different one--ultimately, to insert oneself into a work or into the role of creator or image-maker?

Most interesting of all is what can’t be controlled. For example, the role of color, both affective and physiological: how we perceive it, how it creates mood, how it affects perspective, and how a trait like color blindness plays into our feelings and attraction. 

Art is to a large extent about seducing. A cunning manipulator, it preys on the willing as well as the not so susceptible. Its stratagems can be as obvious as beauty, sex, and appeals to the emotions, or as visceral as bright or lurid colors and satisfying proportions. It can draw victims deep into the picture plane with tricks of perspective, or tousle their brains through the magic of illusion. 

And it can lure them into participation, forcing them to fill in blanks—by connecting lines and completing narratives. Whatever the devices, they exceed their audience’s powers to resist.

Finally, this is where I invite all of you to respond, by arguing or adding your opinions. Please use the "RESPOND TO ISSUE #1" button on the top right of this page to submit your answers.

- Barbara MacAdam


Readers Response: 

Lately I'm feeling that it's impossible to appreciate art if you refuse to lower your guard and permit yourself to be fooled or even be made a fool of. If you refuse, then you'll always feel short-changed. "My kid could do that" is the utterance of someone who needs to feel that she's getting good value, someone who will feel duped if she's not getting what she bargained for.

- J.Wolf


There is no bad art - if its art it is art - some more or less important - the less important art adheres to a minor discourse - and is judged by other criteria - in that it does not subscribe to the same goal as those that are prescribed by the dominant discourse. Within each discourse there are better and worst examples - that is how exemplary they are of their discourse and how best they either elaborate or challenge it. Such conditions and qualities are not immediately apparent - they become confused - and must contend - something that within one moment may be thought to be exemplary proves that with time it is not sustainable - while something that at first is thought to be bad or incomprehensible, emerges as the more interesting proposition - i.e. work of art. As you can see taste does not play a role in my vision - taste is a question of preferences - not importance or influence.

- S.Ostrow


I love this article. It's accessibly written but engages in fundamental questions around contemporary art. I'm exited to read the forthcoming posts!

- K.Battista


Well, I have never thought about what MY taste in art says about me or indeed if there is a thread running through my taste in music, photography, art, film etc. I will, however, now pay attention and I will be interested to see if there is a connection. Thanks for the prompt!

- K.Lyon